Talking Cities

Peter Lewis

Commissioned by Francesca Ferguson, as curator of 'Talking Cities: the micro-politics of urban space', at the Zollverein Coking Plant, Essen, Germany as part of Entry 2006, directed by Rem Koolhaas, commencing August 2006.

The Evacuated Field

Talking Cities


These notes propose an intersection of spatial and conceptual interventions, architectures and artworks. They are based on an idea that if “something is missing”, it is also possible that “something leftover” resides in the lack. We find this paradox best exemplified in certain “unbuilt” peripheries of the city, where discreet, heterotopic spaces resist easy entry and identification. By heterotopic we mean to incite the desire of secret places, or open a new space of invention. Often small in scale, these spaces act as counter-sites to effect, enact and embed an imaginary “utopian” form in liveable, innovatory ways. They bring together a sort of mixed, joint experience in which the real sites within a culture are simulta-neously represented, contested and inverted, as in an anamorphic (distorted) lens or mirror.

The museum, in an arcane sense, had occupied such a space of invention for the flaneur; someone free to discover secrets and pleasures in the “entry ritual”, as mythic passage through labyrinths and archives. The erotic encounter with mysteries illuminated in tableaux, fables, and panoramas were mechanisms that enabled subjective points of view, to think an “inexistence” in the fetish as art-object. However we ask the question, do the arcadia of traditional museum displays and their contents have anything more to give us? Are they not antagonisms to radical change?

Cedric Price’s “Fun Palace”, as part of the movement proposing visionary “megastructural” architectures in the 1950s and 60s, was indicative of an organic re-thinking of the so-called “unity” of culture, nation, and social space, reassembled as an ingenious form of differences. Society is better seen as a “wobbly” architectural system, or a disassembly of technologies, virtualities, and spatial-temporal differences that complement yet cheekily contradict both the conditions of politics and the assumptions of what it does to antagonise subjectivity. Poetics, psychology, memory, science and love are all to be assailed and realigned within a full complement of architectural and technological manifestations. As ruin, dream and monument, the “universal” is invoked only to be made local, regional, historical and particular, not the other way round. Price used the word “dereliction” very specifically here to indicate the “real” dimension of the derelict as both a person and a building sharing latent energy. He wrote:

“You were just a human being, you might be an intellectual derelict, and a social derelict … In fact the word derelict has become more pejorative. Dereliction wasn’t good or bad, it just was what it was.” (from Interview with Hans Ulrich-Obrist, Re:CP, by Cedric Price)

Price was a destroyer of norms, stimulating the “fuzzy” logic of real, everyday life. His paper architectures characterise the resistance of an “antiarchitecture” in line with its counterpart, an “anti-inhumanism”, to form a new common ground founded upon the crisis of modern thought. Architecture shares the same taboos, rituals and, like it or not, wars, complicit as the rest of the “concentrate”. (Price renamed cities “concentrates”. Re:CP) This is a spatial realm implied in Levi-Strauss’ early, and nostalgic, anthropological observations of so-called “primitive” societies. These concentrates enable the civic subject visionary expression – Price’s individual “consumers” of architecture would be able to participate in all manners of cultural transformation through the new provisional spaces of dialogue, for emerging collective and individual subjectivities. His “talking about utopia is a criminal act” of 40 years ago, seems more communicable today, in its implicit paradox of being both sincere, and a joke.

Out of late, late modernity something of Price’s idea is addressed in Talking Cities, echoing the trauma of the post-war period when flowers grew literally out of the city’s sites of dereliction. Unobserved in a time of optimism, the “inhuman” progression of techno-science erased social cooperation and community. Architecture becomes in parallel, a subversion, an alert to “something missing”. It activates “something leftover” able to sustain and respond to these ever growing uncertain circumstances and dangers.

Price’s “Non-Plan” is a subversion of the architect’s “plan” played amid the phantasmic ruins of knowledge. Value was no longer embodied in time honoured skill or craft. Globalisation was, however, not total. On the contrary, Price saw the possibilities for subversion as being increased, vitalised through a certain crisis or exhaustion, most critically via the circulation of commodities, including architectures, in order to be consumed. This exhaustion, which itself re-invigorates the imaginary, was anticipated by Price as operative on many as yet unthought-of levels, literally and metaphorically transforming redundancy into carnival, as a subversive, and collective pleasure. Price’s work resided in architectures of utopia manifesting culture, as standing at a metaphysical and political crossroads.

“What do we have architecture for?” he asked. “It’s a way of imposing order or establishing a belief, and that’s the cause of religion to some extent. Architecture doesn’t need those roles anymore; it doesn’t need mental imperialism; it’s too slow, it’s too heavy, and, anyhow, I, as an architect don’t want to be involved in creating law and order through fear and misery.” (Re:CP)

The moment at which the problem of human society is posed is done so in completely new terms. However by reinspiring the Arche as the unrealised dream of community, we risk an ontological leap. From the anamorphic perspective of the present, the megastructure’s characteristic permissiveness and ideal “promise” of adaptability and internal transience is fizzling out at the end of the 20th Century, over-ridden by excessive ratio-science and political controls.

“The mechanism of hope is linked to that of realism. Once the proletarian social subject has greatly increased its penetration of the real, then we know that the revolution is possible. Utopia is thus accompanied by the certainty that reality is oppressive though under control. Let us call this situation ‘dystopia’. This means that we have reached the threshold of victory and that the causes which inspire us are irresistible.” (from The Politics of Subversion, A Manifesto for the 21st Century by Antonio Negri)

Negri’s view coincides with Price’s “Non-Plan” in that it has contempt for planned architectures. Non-Plan: An Experiment in Freedom published 1969, a year after the Paris protests, argued that the grand constructions of Modernism exacerbated the social problems they attempted to resolve. Planning infers failure as the co-dependency of a over-simplified architecture hiding in a field of “participations”.


Price’s drawings both celebrate and are dismissive of a future based on the energy of science as a phantasmal perception of life. By engaging theatrical devices, rhetoric and hyperbole as material formed from the “everyday”, he argues for greater freedom by ameliorating rather than over-turning existing social conditions. The cultural theorist Theodor Adorno had written: “It seems to me that what people have lost subjectively in regard to consciousness is very simply the capability to imagine the totality as something that could be completely different.”

It would be too easy in the overheated climate of post modernity to dismiss his cool remarks. Seen from another anamorphic view, our time of technology has already changed our destiny permanently: in ecological terms, as atmosphere – we breathe it – and internally, as an invasive technology of the body. We need it.

Both Price’s “Generator”, written as a menu for the delight of “consumers” of architecture, and “Fun Palace”, conceived with theatre designer Joan Littlewood, were projects where individuals were never to be fully enclosed by a technological aesthetic. The pluralities exposed in Talking Cities also denote a wariness of museographic intersections (curating architecture as a series of fixed destinations along linear routes of interpretation) that frame the polyphony of micro-cultures from single point perspectives. Art and Architecture are simultaneously object and instrument, not to be occluded as the meta-language of the museum. Price’s importance therefore is in exposing a question: what is “praxis”, if individuals are attentive to ambivalences buried under a “unifying” principle joining the terms “museum” and “architecture”?

In the remainders (the “suburbs”), viewed from thousands of overlooked, happy “non-places”, the internalised city of signs expires. Waste culture expends enormous energy to generate tiny mass, in the milieu of pure excess and zero censure. At one time Price proposed leaving an architectural site as an empty space, rather than build anything on it, in order to occupy the “interval” of time and space in purely existing terms of its “waste”.

And utopia - nowhere to go but everywhere

The Modernist ideal (progress, freedom, rationality and revolutionary practice) intersects with a new “clean” paradigm of modernity in a state of disrepair. To put the reluctant, now old, “radical” gesture of Price to use today we work with what is “at hand”. As the actors of social change, we discover in the regenerative work of participants in Talking Cities a delight in perceiving the future in terms of distorted reflections. The joke in presenting “This is Tomorrow” today (science-fiction ceases to exist since it is already well lodged in time) is redirected as the task of engineering the museum’s platform on a par with the “outside” world. No easy job.

The museum, once central to the Enlightenment, constructed as a “container” or “conduit” for a totalising (European) empire, is now designed to generate disunity: multi-forms, anti-archives, intervals, in a parody of the art historian’s grammar of metonym, synecdoche and index. Nor is it to be “made up” like the story of Utopia. Rather, it is realistic, all mixed up. The Real of its architecture might be better envisaged and communicated as an “ideal” impurity, as the secondary formalisation of the advent of a hitherto formless form, an evacuated field.

A true dwelling place for thinking “art” and “architecture” can be imagined, as Price did, as an “interstitial” space. Utopian pragmatism enters consciousness as an “evacuated field” moving and locating the finite possibilities of impossible realms, at the cross roads between the Real and Ideal.

The idea of putting together artists and architects to create a space for Talking Cities brings into sensual form the playfulness of Cedric Price’s paper architectures never or not to be built. A complex of surfaces and linear convolutions that, without converging on a destination, stage the new dramaturgy of the museum as a “porous” material. It becomes evident as the project develops that the models of new museum and new architecture overlap only where there is mutual individuation.

Talking Cities produces a multi-layered space in which different events and moments of aggregation, production and discussion can be developed. It places events, workshops, projects and discussions on the same plane. The arguments for a new discourse of space are questioned here. How open a system and individuated an architecture do they really present? Alain Badiou, from his “15 theses on Contemporary Art” can be cited in this respect:

“Thesis 13: Today art can only be made from the starting point of that which, as far as Empire is concerned, doesn’t exist. Through its abstraction, art renders this in-existence visible. This is what governs the formal principle of every art: the effort to render visible to everyone that which, for Empire (and so by extension for everyone, though from a different point of view), doesn’t exist.”